AROUND THE COUNTY – Few things can bring people together like a shared love of the arts, and in Schenectady during the turbulent 1960s, the sound of music often made things a little more harmonious.
Cleveland Howard and John C. Wells were two Black men who thrived in Schenectady’s musical community throughout that decade as the city’s school district grew more and more diverse following World War II. Both loved music and shared that passion with their students, Howard being named chair of the Mont Pleasant High Music Department in January of 1960, while Wells became his counterpart at Linton High School in the fall of 1965.
As we head into Black History Month more than a half century later, it’s a good time to look back on the lives of these two remarkable men and appreciate the impact they had on the school community and the city as a whole. Howard, a Long Island native, was a graduate of Boston University, while Wells, born and raised in Ashville, North Carolina, went to Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Both men would earn their PhDs during the 1960s while working in Schenectady.
Howard got here first in 1955 at the age of 24. After growing up in Greenpoint in Suffolk County and getting his four-year degree at BU in 1953, Howard earned his masters in music education at BU and taught for one year in the Wareham, Massachusetts, school system before landing in Schenectady.
Wells, meanwhile, showed up in 1956 with master’s degrees from New York University and Siena College as well as some work experience. He served as coordinator of music for Dekalb city schools in Atlanta from 1951-53, and as band director at Marietta High School just north of Atlanta from 1953-56.
Official city school history tells us that in 1947 Classie Mae Cox was hired to teach elementary school in Schenectady, the first Black teacher ever in the district. Howard and Wells, meanwhile, while not regular teachers at the high schools in the second half of the 1950s, were both choir directors and often seen in the hallways there before they became heads of their respective music department in the 1960s.
Howard was in Schenectady from 1955-1969 before heading off for a long 30-year gig with the University of New Hampshire. He died in 1999 while on vacation in South America at the age of 67.
Tragically, Wells’ life was cut short even earlier. Soon after landing a position as assistant superintendent of the school system in Englewood, New Jersey, in February of 1977, he was killed in an auto accident on the New York State Thruway near Kingston later that year. He was only 48.
HOWARD STARTS AT PLEASANT VALLEY
As soon as he came to Schenectady, Howard was named director of the Nott Terrace High School Choir (it wasn’t Linton High until 1957). He was also teaching at Pleasant Valley Elementary Schools in the city before being named chair of the Mont Pleasant High Music Department. By then he had not only totally immersed himself into the life of the school district, but was also becoming quite familiar with the area’s musical community, serving as choir director for the All Souls Unitarian Church while also acting as guest conductor for various other choral groups in the city and around the state.
Ron Page, a former Mont Pleasant football standout who also sang in the high school choir, said Howard was the kind of person who immediately gained your attention.
“He was a joy to be with, but he had that air about him that said, ‘I know exactly what I’m doing,’ and he did,” said Page, a 1969 Mont Pleasant grad who continued to play football at Syracuse University. “He was very charismatic and he knew his business, and he made sure all of us in the choir did, too.”
Noreen Pratt, a 1968 MP grad who is white and now lives in Colorado, remembers the professionalism exuded by Howard, but she can also recall a softer side.
“He was a real gentle, sweet man, and he reminded us all of Sidney Poitier,” said Pratt, referring to the distinguished black actor who gained super stardom in Hollywood in the 1960s. “He encouraged me, and got me to sing my first solo, ‘Till There Was You.’ He really was a very likable guy.”
For young blacks growing up in Schenectady in the Sixties, Howard was something special.
“He was so well spoken and highly educated, and being a kid growing up on Hamilton Hill at the time, we didn’t have a lot of black teachers to look up to,” said Dean Vrooman, a 1968 graduate of Mont Pleasant who also played football and sang in the school choir. “He took us to the World’s Fair down in New York in ‘64 or ‘65. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was so extremely helpful, but he was also a perfectionist. He could see the good qualities in us, and he worked with us to help us improve as singers and musicians.”
Gary DiNola, a 1969 Mont Pleasant graduate who also sang in the school choir, was at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in the late 1950s when he first got to know Howard.
“His life story and his impact on many of us was profound,” said DiNola, who later coached the 1997-98 Schenectady High boys basketball team to the NYSPHSAA championship. “Dr. Howard brought us all over the state to perform and compete. He was a wonderful man who inspired thousands in his life.”
WELLS EXCELLS AT VAN CORLAER
Just as inspirational and impressive was Wells and his work. He started out teaching music to elementary school children, but also was directing the Linton High School choir at the new campus on the city’s east side, as well as across town at Van Corlaer Junior High School Choir in the Bellevue neighborhood. In March of 1963, Wells took his 52-student choir from Van Corlaer to a special concert in Springfield, Massachusetts, and drew praise from a number of prominent conductors from around the East Coast. The event was the Massachusetts Music Education Conference.
“There is so much communication of warmth and understanding between this group and its director,” said Boston Symphony Youth Conductor Dr. Marvin Rabin in a Gazette article from 60 years ago, referring to the Van Corlaer students and Wells. “Their singing reflects this.”
Conference chairman Richard Boisvert also spoke highly of the Van Corlaer choir in the same Gazette story.
“We here at the conference have been honored with what undoubtedly has been the outstanding performance by any choral group,” said Boisvert.
Wells drew that kind of praise by music lovers from all over the state, and he also had plenty of fans among the Linton High student population, including 1960 All-American Barry Kramer. When he wasn’t nailing jump shots on the basketball court, Kramer sang in the choir throughout his three years in high school.
“I admired him, and he had so much control over us as a group,” remembered Kramer, who was also a college All-American at NYU. “He demanded quality and he got it. He was a great music teacher, and made us kids better and made the music sound fantastic. He was a great man; just an amazing guy.”
Wells’ son Keith said his father “loved to cook, emphasized etiquette and was very sociable.” He was only 13 and a freshman at Niskayuna High when the Thruway car crash took his father’s life.
“I remember him always being supportive and making sure we were taken care of” said Keith Wells, who still lives in Niskayuna. “He wanted to make sure we could get the best out of what life might offer us.”
Yvonne Gaither, who now lives in Haymarket, Virginia, was in her senior year at Niskayuna when her father took the job in Englewood, New Jersey.
“He was a lot of fun and very loving, said Gaither, who along with her brother and mother, Sara Wells, was going to join John Wells in New Jersey later that year. “He was also very smart, and I remember how he loved the song ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ He was always trying to get to the top, which is why he got his two master’s degrees and his doctorate.”
Howard and Wells were indeed pioneers in Schenectady, and as late as 1970, Wells is the only black faculty member you can find in the Linton High yearbook. The Mont Pleasant yearbook, meanwhile, just one year after Howard had left for UNH in 1969, is devoid of any black teachers.
However, there were some black teachers, mostly women, scattered among the city’s elementary schools in the 1950s and many more popped up in the 1960s. Along with Cox, here’s a look at two Black women who started their careers in Schenectady in the 1950s, and a third that began in 1960.
Classie Mae Cox – Born in Raeford, North Carolina, in 1920, she passed away in February of 2021 in Milwaukee about two months shy of her 101st birthday. The valedictorian in her class at Upchurch High School in North Carolina, she graduated from Fayetteville State Teachers College, earning her degree in education. The first black teacher hired by the Schenectady City School District, she taught at Riverside Elementary School in the Stockade for just two years before moving to Milwaukee in 1949 where she had a long teaching career and was a driving force in desegregating the city school district there.
Marian Hughes – While Cox was already well into her move to Milwaukee, Marion Hughes started teaching at Paige Elementary School in 1955. An Albany native who graduated from the State Teachers College in Albany (now the University at Albany) and Oneonta College, Hughes left Schenectady to become principal at an all-girls school in Nigeria just north of Lagos in 1961. After six years there, she returned to New York and continued her teaching career in Schenectady and then Albany. In 1985 she wrote a book, “Standing Tall, a Tribute to Education.”
Anna Blood Crossley – An Amsterdam native, she began her teaching career in 1957 at Yates Elementary School and went on to teach at Horace Mann and Martin Luther King schools. She retired in 1984 and currently lives in Grayson, Georgia.
Laura Hoke Vonie – Born in Canajoharie in 1930, she was a Mont Pleasant High graduate who went on to get her degree in psychology at Russell Sage College and her masters at the University at Albany. She began as a substitute teacher in the elementary schools in 1960, and became a special resource teacher at various elementary schools and junior high schools in the district. She was also assistant principal at Washington Irving, Grout, Zoller and Paige schools before retiring in 1985. Earlier, in 1968, the school district hired her as Coordinator of Human Relations. In 1965, she was one of two Schenectady delegates to the National NAACP Convention in Denver, Colorado. She died in May of 2012.
It was fascinating to research the history of the city’s school district the last few weeks, and helping me along the way were a number of people – many of them mentioned above. A conversation with one person led to a chat with somebody else who provided even more information, helping me uncover another interesting tidbit of Schenectady history. A special thanks go out to Gary DiNola, who really got me started on this project, and to Julia Holcomb, another retired school teacher in the district whose input was invaluable.
Historical Society workshop
The Schenectady County Historical Society will be offering a workshop on archiving and organizing family and personal history on Saturday, Feb. 18 at the society headquarters on Washington Avenue in the Stockade.
The event is being held in conjunction with the society’s Schenectady African American Historical Records Project, a public history project focused on preserving the heritage and historical records of African Americans in Schenectady. The AAHRP’s community survey asks a range of questions designed to help expand the public’s understanding of the rich Black history in Schenectady, as well as illuminate the historical records created by African Americans and maintained by community memory keepers.
The historical society will also mark Black History Month with a virtual presentation on Sunday, Feb. 26. For more information visit https://schenectadyhistorical.
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